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No. 30 – Defensiveness – A Natural Response

June 8, 2011

Do you get cooperative, positive responses when you offer advice or guidance for radiation safety? How often do radiation workers, who you are trying to help, become defensive? Have you ever wondered why they get so “up tight” over a little criticism?

The basis for defensiveness and resistance has been reviewed in  Insights No. 22-29. Defensiveness is a natural coping mechanism for dealing with threat or perception of threat. When we are confronted with threat, our natural reaction is to protect ourselves. We quickly revert to the “fight or flight” response of a cave man to the roar of a saber tooth tiger.

When we meet with resistance or defensiveness in our radiation safety programs, we have invited a fight response and the underlying fears. The need to protect ourselves arises from the fear of the consequences of not protecting ourselves. Behind the fear is anxiety stimulated by images of our fate if we do not react. The images that drive our reactions are automatic and probably were established during our early childhood as a means of survival.

Once we hook someone’s defensiveness, further communications are going to be filtered through the images and fears that led to the defensiveness. The possibility of gaining cooperation will likely decrease as defensiveness goes up. Is there a way to get good responses when implementing requirements for radiation safety? Yes, there are several possibilities.

You can reduce defensiveness by not giving your workers anything to push against (i.e. you do not get defensive yourself). The way you can tell if the other person is reacting defensively is when you find yourself getting defensive. You will know when you are being defensive by the churning in your stomach, and when you feel a need to justify yourself, to argue your point, or to raise your admonitions from advice to demand. You can defuse defensiveness by agreeing with your worker’s feelings about the situation.

For example, if researchers complain about new security requirements, one answer would be to agree with their frustrations. By agreeing on the feelings, you establish a basis of concerns in common for discussing the difficulties of keeping all doors locked. Furthermore, that discussion can now proceed in an atmosphere of cooperation rather than defensiveness.

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